The Transcendence Of God’s Mercy


God is transcendent, of that I’ve been sure. He is higher than His creation and therefore surpasses our ability to dissect Him, analyze Him, pigeonhole Him into our compartments of understanding. In fact, if He hadn’t chosen to reveal Himself, we would be forever shut out of His presence in ignorant misery — desperately longing, incapable of reaching.

In fact, one of my favorite passages of Scripture spells out this transcendent nature of God:

For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:8-9)

I’d never thought much more of transcendence—just that God is. But one day, I came across a passage from Psalm 103 that caught my attention:

The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.
He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. (vv 8-11, emphasis mine)

There, nestled in the middle of the section (it continues for several verses) about God’s compassion, mercy, lovingkindness, is the same line Isaiah used to describe how high God’s ways and thoughts are above ours: as high as the heavens are above the earth.

I realize now I’d never taken the idea of God’s transcendence to its logical conclusion. If He is higher than we, if His thoughts are, His ways are, then it stands to reason that what forms Him, what defines Him as a person—His traits—also will be higher than ours. Hence His love will be higher than ours, His compassion higher than ours, His patience, His forgiveness, His justice, and His mercy—or as some translations have it, His lovingkindness.

Sometimes God’s lovingkindness mystifies me, and sometimes His justice does the same. Why, for example, did David who had Uriah killed become known as a man after God’s own heart? Apart from God’s mercy and forgiveness, it doesn’t make sense. And why, when Ahab let his wife Jezebel murder Naboth in order to take his property, and God said Ahab and his descendants would be removed from the throne, why, I ask, did God relent and tell Ahab he would leave him on the throne after all? In fact, why did one of his sons ruled for twelve years after Ahab’s death? God was merciful, and I’m pretty sure I would have been inclined to throw the book at the whole family. At once. No delay.

Yet how grateful I am for God’s delays in my life. He gives me mercy and help in time of need. He doesn’t slam His door in my face but graciously answers prayer. Over and over and over.

I originally connected this discussion of God’s mercy with the report I heard of an agent friend wh0 was diagnosed with brain cancer. At the time he’d received an all clear from the doctor, but his cancer came back, and he passed away.

More recently, my friend Brandon Barr, who had battled leukemia for a number of years, received a doctor’s report that he had 1 to 2 months to live. He died the day before Thanksgiving.

I had specifically prayed that God would be merciful. And I prayed for healing. But God didn’t restore either man to health. Did He extend His mercy to them? How can I know?

Trying to discern what God is up to is really impossible unless He tells us, because He has the big picture in front of Him. He certainly cares for us in the here and now, but this blip of time that He refers to as a vapor, as a fading flower, a bit of grass that’s here today and gone tomorrow, is not the whole story. God cares about the whole story. He cares about our eternal destiny. He cares about the people we can influence by our dying as much as by our living, by our suffering as much as by our victories.

We are limited in what we can see, as if we’re staring at the sky through a straw. But God has no such limitation. He sees the big picture and He sees it from beginning to eternity.

So really, when it comes to understanding God’s great, transcendent mercy, pretty much all I’ve got is His word. His word and my experience of His keeping His word. His word and my experience and the experiences of believers across time and from all over the globe.

But still, when we can’t know the eternity side of things, how do we know that God is merciful to people like Jim Elliott who was martyred or Betsy ten Boom who died in a concentration camp or Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed mere months before Germany signed the peace treaty. How do we know?

Because He promised. He has told us that His mercy endures throughout all generations.

He followed that up by promising a Messiah. Then Jesus came. Died. Rose from the dead.

Could anything be a greater demonstration of God’s great mercy?

A verse in Romans explains:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Rom. 8:33—ESV)

God already took care of our greatest need. Is He going to overlook lesser needs now? He won’t. Our problem is that we are still looking at the night sky through a straw. More often than we like, our view of things is bleak, as if Satan is winning.

Unless we fix our eyes on God’s transcendent mercy that shows us our Savior, that shows us Himself. We can’t actually see the crowns, the glory, the joy, the triumph. But we can see Jesus. Hebrews says as much:

But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.
But we do see Him (Hebrews 2:8b-9a)

If all things were subjected to him now, no one would be dying of cancer. We’re not there yet. But we do see Jesus, the One who rendered “powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.” We have His act of mercy and His promise of mercy, and that transcends anything we can see through our straw.

Some of this post is revised from an article that appeared here in December, 2011.

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Published in: on November 29, 2018 at 5:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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God And His Mysterious Ways


Some people try to define God’s work, and therefore to define God—sort of like trying to photograph a double rainbow that stretches across the sky. If you could just snap the picture, then you’d have the rainbow for always.

God doesn’t operate in such a way that we can ever capture Him. Yet—and here’s one of the most mysterious of His Ways—He voluntarily, willfully declares my heart His home.

As far as “mysterious ways” is concerned, I think of Joseph resisting the sexual temptations Potiphar’s wife threw at him day after day, only to end up in prison. Well, not “end up” because he moved from the outhouse to the penthouse in a mere thirteen years. Thirteen years that undoubtedly had Joseph thinking nothing would ever change, that his life was going to continue on and on and on in the dungeon. But it didn’t. God had big things in store for Joseph.

I think of the little slave girl, an Israelite captive torn from her home, probably from her family, refusing to be bitter or to seek revenge but reaching out to bless the man she worked for by telling him of the prophet of God who could cure him of his leprosy. As a result, the mighty Aramean officer ended up declaring, “Behold now, I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel” (2 Kings 5:20).

Then there is Samson. What an amazing thing that God used that philanderer. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have chosen him. He was supposed to be a Nazarene from birth, but he broke the parameters more than once that defined that special relationship with God. He seemed self-absorbed and more inclined to use God than serve Him. But God was pleased to include him as a judge of Israel, pleased to make him a means to free His people from the oppressive rule of the Philistines.

Or how about the beauty pageant that ended up sparing the lives of hundreds of Jews? I remember when I first heard about Esther, I was horrified that Mordecai didn’t try to sequester her away or make a run for the hills. Instead, he truly seemed to be encouraging her, and she seemed to want to win the role as queen. Except, unlike the fairy tales, this was no monogamous happy-together-ever-after story. No! Esther got to be part of the kings harem (think of all the women he slept with before he slept with her and finally decided she was queen material). And yet, God used her in that place to save hundreds, maybe thousands.

What about in contemporary times? God used the death of five young husbands, some also fathers, to save a group of people who had never heard of Jesus, at the same time turning the hearts of countless believers to become involved in missions.

He used a spinster lady in the latter end of middle-aged through to her “golden years” to teach a generation what forgiveness really means, to spread the gospel of God’s incredible power over death and destruction and hatred and evil.

He is using the humble submission of an athletic teenage girl who suffered a catastrophic, debilitating accident, who has lived life for forty-five years as a quadriplegic and continues to tell of her love for her Lord.

I would have done things differently, I’m sure. Look how talented Joni Eareckson Tada is—as an artist, a writer, a speaker. How much more could she do if she weren’t in a wheelchair? What a silly person I am. Who would have heard of Joni if she hadn’t been the girl who drew holding her pen in her mouth? And what would she be talking about now or who would listen? Isn’t it her willing submission in the face of her adversity that makes her life so winsome?

God knows these things. He knows what it takes. But to us, because we don’t know what it takes, His ways will always appear mysterious.

God moves in a mysterious way
his wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
and rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
of never failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs
and works his sovereign will.

You fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
in blessings on your head.

His purposes will ripen fast,
unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
and scan his work in vain:
God is his own interpreter,
and he will make it plain.
– by William Cowper

– – – – –

This article is a reprint of one originally posted May 2011 and reprised in October 2014.

Loving God Means What Exactly?


IconsMore than once I’ve heard or read people saying they love God but want nothing to do with religion. I can’t help wonder what those who hold this position mean when they say they love God.

Is loving God some kind of emotion we generate toward an icon, an idea, or even toward a person? I guess that question puts the focus on the main thing: what do people removing themselves from the constraints of organized religion mean when they say “God”?

I wonder if there is anything close to a consensus. I mean, without organized religion—people coming together in agreement—can’t “God” mean whatever a person wants? So God could be an impersonal force, like fate or destiny. Or God could be the Perfect or Enlightenment to which we all can strive. God could be nature or the universal good or a great pool of consciousness or a spark within each person or … well, you get the idea.

It seems to me, no one can love God unless they know Him. By definition, God is set apart as Other. So how can we know what is transcendent?

Sea_Goddess_of_MercyThe monotheist understands God to be supreme, the ruler, even the creator. Those of a pantheistic mind set see god in all things and all in god. In between are those who believe as the Greeks did or the Hindus do, that there are many gods, each needing to be kept happy in his or her own way.

With all these ideas floating about, how does someone come to an understanding of God?

One common approach I’ve heard is to say, To me, God is …

That approach strikes me as odd. We wouldn’t do that with any other person we know, and we criticize others if we think they are inventing things about someone else. In fact we even have slander and libel laws to punish people who make up harmful stuff about other individuals.

People do repeat false statements about celebrities and politicians, and we wrangle about lines like President Obama is a Muslim or Donald Trump is an idiot. Whether or not the public realizes it, they don’t arrive at these false ideas on their own. They’ve been fed those lines by a propagandist who wishes to influence public thought.

So too with God. Average people did not independently arrive at views such as, To me God is loving and would never care about a person’s sexual orientation; or, To me God is a cosmic force that put the world in motion; or, To me God is a divine spark in each of us. They’ve been fed these lines by an individual who “takes his stand on visions he has seen”—meaning, a spirit has put it in his head—or who is “inflated without cause by his fleshly mind” (quotes from Col 2:18).

God, being God, can’t be known unless He discloses Himself. In virtually all the definitions of God, he is understood to exist “apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe” (Oxford American Dictionary). How, then, could people subject to those limitations study, grasp, comprehend, or know One who is outside the confines of our experiences and abilities? The only way to know God is if God would choose to disclose Himself to us.

And He has done precisely that.

So when it comes to loving God, the first and foremost definition of love, as I see it, is recognizing God to be who He says He is.

The online site LinkedIn allows individuals to endorse others with a click of the button. From time to time I get endorsed by people in subjects which don’t reflect what I do or who I am. I appreciate the fact that the endorser was thinking of me, but I also know the person doesn’t really know me or they wouldn’t have back-slapped me in an area in which I have no expertise.

God, of course, has unlimited expertise, but people who don’t know Him put limits on Him, essentially denying who He is. They’ll say He’s loving but not a just judge; He’s powerful but not powerful enough to create the world with a word; He’s good but not so good that the hard things could actually be part of His plan.

How can we get past our limitations? Only by accepting God’s revelation. He, like any artist, poured His heart, His personality, into what He made. So we can look around us at the world—the parts that Humankind hasn’t tainted—and draw conclusions about God. He’s beautiful. He’s interested in the smallest details. He’s cosmic. He’s orderly. He’s nurturing. And so many others.

In addition, He’s disclosed Himself directly to people and has had them pass on His messages to the rest of us. Ultimately He put on skin and became one of us to show us His heart.

Because God made it possible, we can know Him. To love Him means we accept Him for who He’s told us He is.

Loving God also means agreeing with Him. Disagreeing with God is just another way of not recognizing Him to be who He says He is. How could He truly be transcendent and wrong? or just and wrong? or good and wrong?

In short, anyone who loves God will want to do as He says. This, I believe, is a response of the will and not one of the emotions. The funny thing is, where the will goes, the emotions are sure to follow.

This post is a revised and updated version of one that first appeared here in August 2013.

Published in: on July 26, 2018 at 5:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Christians Have Answers—A Reprise


A number of years ago, atheists popularized a response to the Christian catch-phrase, Jesus is the Answer: “If Jesus is the answer, what is the question?” Some time later, a Christianized edition surfaced: “If Jesus is the answer, why are Christians afraid to ask questions?”

Oddly, this sentiment co-exists with a sort of artificial humility that has Christians backing off from knowing anything. Rather than offering a defense to everyone who asks us to give an account for our faith (1 Peter 3:15), we are now, apparently, to say spiritual things are a mystery. It’s a type of Christian agnosticism.

The whole notion of spiritual mystery is an outgrowth of postmodern thought and is not a Biblical concept. Instead Scripture teaches that God is transcendent:

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Because God is Other, we will never figure Him out. Does that mean He remains cloaked in mystery? Actually no, for one reason, and one reason only: God chose to reveal Himself to us.

Hence, when the New Testament writers reference the mystery of God, they say things like “make known” or “speak forth” or “reveal.”

Clearly God has made known what Mankind needs to know, first in creation, then through His Word, His Son, and finally by His Spirit. The interesting thing is, the more we see of God, the more we see of God.

In other words, Christ, who is the image of the invisible God, makes reconciliation with God possible. To those who believe, He gives His Spirit who in turn teaches us all truth and brings to remembrance all that Jesus said (John 14:26). And of course Jesus said what He received from the Father. In addition, the Spirit “searches all things, even the depths of God” (I Cor. 2:10b).

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul continued to explain the working of the Holy Spirit. Then he concluded the discussion with this amazing statement: “But we have the mind of Christ” (I Cor. 2:15).

So … it’s a fair assumption, then, that Christians have answers, even to hard questions.

I suspect the problem has never been about not having answers but about not liking the answers we have.

For example, a hard, hard question that has been asked down through the ages is this one: Why is there suffering in the world?

The Bible gives the answer: because of sin.

But no, we want more. That one’s too simple, too impersonal, especially when the suffering we’re asking about seems very personal. In fact, we’re often asking, Why me?

Again the answer, All have sinned and come short of the glory of God, and the wages of sin is death.

Another answer we don’t like.

Shouldn’t being a Christian change that answer? Shouldn’t Christians be able to count on God to get us out of suffering?

Again, the Bible gives the answers, ones we just don’t like. We are to expect persecution, to bear our cross, to share in the sufferings of Christ including the fellowship of His death.

When the questions involve the Big Things of life—why am I here, how did I come to be, what lies ahead—the Bible gives those answers too (for God’s glory; by His creation; judgment and life eternal, either in His presence or cast from Him).

But how? How does it all work?

Need I say it? The Bible tells us how:

For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together (Col 1:16-17).

But to those weighty, cosmic questions, aren’t those answers illustrations of the earlier criticism—they’re simplistic, impersonal.

I’ll answer with a set of questions of my own: Is Christ simplistic? Impersonal?

Perhaps how a person views Christ determines whether or not that individual believes Christians have answers.

– – –

For other posts on this subject see “Transcendence vs. Mystery,” and “Draw Near To God … For What End?”

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in July, 2011.

Published in: on July 9, 2018 at 5:30 pm  Comments Off on Christians Have Answers—A Reprise  
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Saving Truth


As I mentioned, I’m reading a book called Saving Truth by Abdu Murray. This is an advance reader copy, which allows me and others like me on the Saving Truth launch team to get the word out ahead of the release date. It’s pretty fun, actually, to see what others are saying on Twitter and Facebook. But that’s neither here nor there. The point I want to make first and foremost is that the pre-order of the book at Abdu Murray’s website provides some bonus items that are well-worth having.

This is a great book for a small group study, and one of the bonus items is a free study guide. Another is videos to use with the book, which again lends itself well to a small group study.

But I want to mention this book for a couple reasons. First, the culture of chaos which the post-truth era has ushered in could not be seen more clearly than in what is transpiring here in California.

As I noted in “California’s Latest Can Of Worms” we have the liberal left introducing a bill into the state legislature, which passed the assembly, that would seriously curtail the free speech and exercise of freedom of religion for anyone who wants to offer hope and help to someone struggling with homosexuality or even questioning their sexual identity. My intention is not to rehash that article, but I do see this bill as an example of the confusion of the age that Abdu Murray so clearly identifies and describes.

On one hand the bill wants to “preserve the rights” of those with sexual identity issues from being subjected to the kind of therapy that has been hurtful to some, though helpful for others. Trying to “change” a sexual orientation that someone “is born with” has been deemed fraudulent, and therefore advertising or promoting any such efforts is also prohibited. Of course, the other side of the coin is that such a law infringes on the freedom of speech of those who disagree, who have the witness of those who have believed the truth of God’s word and who no longer live under the repressive ideas of those who say a person can’t change once they’ve identified a same sex attraction.

As if that wasn’t enough, freedom of religion is at stake also. Various religions, notably Christians, believe that homosexuality is a sin. But to teach this principle or to write about it, or to sell books that discuss the dangers and the ways in which a person can deal with same-sex attraction would now conflict with the proposed California law, and therefore, the law would conflict with the US Constitution, specifically with the First Amendment.

In fact, as I read the chapter in Saving Truth about sexuality, gender, and identity, I had to wonder if this book will still be legal to purchase here in California, should the law pass.

Besides the way in which the California situation demonstrates the truth of Murray’s premise, I found something else really insightful in a quote in the book from Isaac Newton’s Optics.

The context is the chapter entitled “Clarity about Science and Faith.” Among other points, Murray discusses the question “Have Science and Faith Been at Odds through History?” Here’s the description of the book from the Sir Isaac Newton website:

Opticks is a book by English natural philosopher Isaac Newton that was published in English in 1704. (A scholarly Latin translation appeared in 1706.) The book analyses the fundamental nature of light by means of the refraction of light with prisms and lenses, the diffraction of light by closely spaced sheets of glass, and the behavior of color mixtures with spectral lights or pigment powders. It is considered one of the great works of science in history. Opticks was Newton’s second major book on physical science.

So what’s the quote that caught my attention? I had to read it a couple times to grasp what it was saying, but here it is in a nutshell. In answer to the idea that life came from chaos, he philosophizes that no development of the eye would have occurred because without the understanding of light and color, there would be no need for an eye. No ear would have come into being without first an understanding of sound and the need to receive those waves. Here’s the quote:

How came the bodies of animals to be contrived with so much art, and for what ends were their several parts?

Was the eye contrived without skill in Opticks, and the ear without knowledge of sounds?…and these things being rightly dispatch’d, does it not appear from phænomena that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent…?

I personally think that bit of logic is brilliant. If an organism would evolve from a simpler form for the purpose of survival, how would it know that eyes or ears would actually benefit it? There would be no reason to evolve into a sighted being or a hearing being without first an apprehension that there was something to see and something to hear! The two actually have to work together, or there has to be a transcendent Being who fits all the pieces in place.

In short, Saving Truth has helped me grapple with the present day circumstances in which I live, and it’s provided a wonderful piece of information that helps me understand God and His creation in a more complete way.

There are many other details and conclusions that Abdu Murray reaches in this book. I’ll post a more complete review of it when I finish. For now, I invite you to pre-order a copy so you can benefit from the bonus offer. Those will be good through the weekend. The book launches May 8 which is next Tuesday.

Published in: on May 3, 2018 at 6:16 pm  Comments Off on Saving Truth  
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The Difference Between Knowing And Understanding


I know a lot of things, but that doesn’t mean I understand them. I know my car does this piston thing, burning fuel to make it run, but I couldn’t explain much more about the workings of the engine. I know less about my computer and a tenth of that about the Internet.

Still, though I don’t understand them, I use those basic tools. I know how to drive, how to enter information into my computer, how to access any number of sites and services on the World Wide Web.

I know, but I don’t understand.

Quite frankly, I’m fine with things the way they are. There are mechanics, tech guys, and webmasters who understand these things and take care of fixing them when they break. I trust their expertise and don’t feel like I need to kibitz—they’re quite capable without my input.

There’s an idea in our culture, however, that seems to treat God differently. He, the thought goes, is a mystery and we’ll never know Him because we will never have true understanding of Him. He is, after all, so far beyond mankind that we shouldn’t expect to understand Him or to know what He’s like. Here’s an example of this kind of thinking from a comment to another blog:

For me, I find that looking for the answers is satisfying enough, even if I never find ultimate truth. Omniscience is a beautiful, holy ideal. I know I will never attain it, but why stop trying? My brain is wired, therefore, with a strange dilemma: there is no ultimate truth, yet I’m going to search for it.

Rather than critiquing or responding to that comment, I want, instead, to take what I hope is a Scriptural look at the mystery of God.

First, the Bible makes it clear that God is indeed far beyond Mankind, that He doesn’t do or think like us:

For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:9-9).

Such a situation seems to lend itself to belief that God is in fact a mystery. However, God has shown from the beginning of time that He had no desire to be a mystery.

First He made Man in His own image, after His own likeness. Just by looking at people, even in our fallen state, we can know something about God.

Second, God was engaged with Man, walking and talking with him rather than withdrawing and watching from afar. Even after man sinned and suffered the consequences, God interacted with Abel, Enoch, Noah, Job, Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Samuel, Solomon, Daniel, and many others.

He also gave His Law and for forty years gave a visible indication of His presence with the people He chose as His own. He stayed with them, fought for them, fed them, kept their cloths from wearing out, disciplined them, and fulfilled His promises to them.

Still, there was a mystery — something God kept in reserve that all those people only caught a hint of. That mystery was Jesus Christ:

Of this church I [Paul] was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col 1:25-27 – emphasis added).

All throughout the New Testament, then, the mystery is mentioned in light of its unveiling.

Mat 13:11: Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven …

Rom 16:25 … according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past,

Eph 1:9 He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him

Eph 3:3 that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery …

[emphases added]

Furthermore, we learn from Scripture that Christ is the image of the invisible God, that it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him. Hebrews spells out succinctly God showing Himself to Man:

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power (Heb 1:1-3a).

Is God a mystery?

How can we say that He is when He says He is not?

Does that mean we understand everything about Him? Not by a long shot.

But remember, understanding and knowing are not the same thing. We cannot let the thinking of our time push us off of the sure knowledge of God that we have — not because of our great intellect, which is nothing in comparison to God’s infinite knowledge, but because of God’s kindness and love which spurred Him to reveal Himself to us.

What He has told us, then, is sure knowledge, the testimony of omniscience. We can know what He has revealed, though we may never understand it.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in August 2012.

Published in: on July 20, 2017 at 5:44 pm  Comments (3)  
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Ambiguity, Thy Cousin Is Relativism


A_starry_sky_above_Death_Valley

I haven’t heard a lot about the emerging church lately. According to one source the eulogy has been given and only one hold-out pastor remains. I suspect the disaffected who identified with the emerging church have been swallowed up by Progressive Christians.

Nevertheless, the emerging church movement had an impact on traditional churches. The tell of their influence is in the buzz words that crop up in radio programs, print articles, Internet sites, and sermons—words such as truth claims, missio or missional, conversations, contextualize, and mystery. There’s a concept, also, which I’ve heard, though not necessarily stated so bluntly—ambiguity.

The thinking is, God is a mystery, life is a mystery, and there really aren’t any definitive answers.

I admit—I get a little cranky when I hear people espousing these views.

First, God is NOT a mystery. He is transcendent. The two are quite different, a topic I explored in the post “Transcendence vs. Mystery.” That God is not a mystery becomes clear when we read passages in Scripture such as Jeremiah 9:24:

“But let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the LORD. (emphasis, here and throughout this post, is added)

The New Testament also affirms God’s “knowability.” For example, Paul says in Colossians 2:2b-3

attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Yes, the mystery has been revealed. Paul stated this clearly in the first chapter of the same book:

that is, the mystery which had been hidden from past ages and generations, but has now been revealed to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

On the other hand, that God is transcendent is also clear. Isaiah 40:12-14 sets the stage for a beautiful declaration of God’s transcendence by asking a series of questions:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand,
And marked off the heavens by the span,
And calculated the dust of the earth by the measure,
And weighed the mountains in a balance
And the hills in a pair of scales?
Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD,
Or as His counselor has informed Him?
With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding?
And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge
And informed Him of the way of understanding?

The conclusion is powerful. In part it reads

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
Has it not been declared to you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is He who sits above the circle of the earth,
And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers,
Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain
And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.
He it is who reduces rulers to nothing,
Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless.
Scarcely have they been planted,
Scarcely have they been sown,
Scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth,
But He merely blows on them, and they wither,
And the storm carries them away like stubble.
“To whom then will you liken Me
That I would be his equal?” says the Holy One
.
Lift up your eyes on high
And see who has created these stars,
The One who leads forth their host by number,
He calls them all by name;
Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power,
Not one of them is missing.

The Apostle Paul brings together God’s transcendence and his “knowability” in 1 Cor. 2:12-16:

Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, THAT HE WILL INSTRUCT HIM? But we have the mind of Christ.

In that last verse, Paul quotes from Isaiah, showing that God’s transcendence is unchanged, and yet, because of Christ’s work on the cross and God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to believers, we have the mind of Christ.

In other words, Christians can know, we do have answers, we don’t need to walk around in a cloud of doubt.

Granted, the answers may not be what people want to hear. More often than not, our “why” will be answered by God’s “I’m working out my will in the world.” For some, that’s not good enough.

For others that’s too spot on. That sin and suffering, pain and heartache, have a purpose seems too unambiguous. That God is sovereignly in charge over things we wish He would eradicate makes us uncomfortable. How can we trust a God whose answer to our questions is, Trust Me?

We want more, or we want to say, more isn’t attainable. For some reason, a segment of the religious find satisfaction in a declaration that things are ambiguous. Some readily belittle faith that claims to be the assurance of things hoped for. Faith, in these critics’ way of looking at things, is actually doubt.

What I find interesting is that this embracement of doubt, of uncertainty, of ambiguity, seems to mirror the rise of postmodernism’s version of relativism. Essentially, the idea that we cannot know—because history changes facts and redefines terms, because we are constrained by our culture and our experiences to understand only within our own narrow framework, not that of the broader context—shatters the idea that there is an inerrant, infallible Word of God upon which we can rely for Truth.

The problem in all this is that those who say we cannot know, rule out the possibility that God did in fact give us a written record of what He wants us to know, that He preserved what He told us down through the ages, and that He gave us His Spirit to understand it apart from and beyond our own cultural constraints.

And why do they rule God’s transcendent work out?

They would rather believe in mystery, I guess, rather than transcendence. But in so doing, they are, themselves, drawing the conclusion that they KNOW God could not work in such a transcendent way. It’s another way of putting Man in God’s place.

This post first appeared here in June 2014.

The Synergy Of God And Man


One of the things I find inexplicable is God’s choice to work in and through us humans. I mean, the infinite chooses to use the finite, the perfect, the imperfect, the omnipotent using the weak, the holy working through the sinful. It’s too transcendent for me to grasp, but apparently, according to Scripture, God is pleased to include us.

First He gave us the God-like responsibility of dominion over the rest of creation.

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:26-28 – emphasis mine)

After the Fall and the flood, He worked through individuals such as the judges He sent to liberate His people from their oppressors, and He worked through nations such as Egypt who provided a safe haven for His people as they grew stronger.

More astounding, He worked through prophets who relayed His messages, given through visions or direct communication. Similarly He worked through a variety of men to produce His word, the Bible, and this is perhaps the best illustration of the synergy of God and Man.

God inspired the Bible. Put another way, the Bible was God-breathed. According to one Biblical scholar,

inspiration is the act of the same Spirit controlling those who make that knowledge known to others
(see commentary from the Blue Letter Bible)

Peter had this to say:

As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. (1 Peter 1:9-10 – emphases mine)

The prophets prophesied but the Spirit of Christ predicted.

Each author retained his own personality and wrote from his own life experience, in his own style. Hence, the Bible is God’s word but Moses was the author or David or Joel or Paul or John.

This unique hand-in-glove way of working, stronger than “partnership,” gives us a picture of salvation, too. God gave His Son, imputes righteousness, provides grace and mercy, and yet Man is to repent and believe. He is to “lay hold of that for which also [he] was laid hold of by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12b).

(For more on how this synergism works in respect to salvation, see “Monergism, Synergism, and God’s Image, 2 of 2.”)

As believers we have the experience of having the Holy Spirit living in us, such that we are His temple, and yet we aren’t “possessed” by Him. We can quench Him (1 Thess. 5:19) or grieve Him (Eph. 4:30) and we’re commanded to be filled with Him (Eph. 5:18), as if this is a volitional thing on our part.

In addition, God gave us work to do. He commissioned us to go into all the world and make disciples. In much the same way, Jesus commissioned his disciples to go to the towns and villages where He Himself would come, but they went ahead, teaching and healing and casting out demons.

Our pastors will often say we are the hands and feet of Christ in our world. It’s an image Paul created in Colossians (see 2:19) and elsewhere — Christ is the head of the church, we are the “joints and ligaments,” the ears and nose. And the point is that we, as incredibly inefficient as it seems, are to do God’s work here and now.

In using the finite to show grace and forgiveness, the Infinite One receives glory. It’s an amazing plan, and I am so in awe that He would deign to use the weak, the marred bits of pottery, that He might even use me. What a great God!

Published in: on August 21, 2015 at 6:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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Using The Bible Instead Of Believing It


Front_door_(2135742023)

“Sarah, what are you doing?” Carmen stared at her friend as if she were looking at an ET look-alike.

Sarah slid into the front seat of her SUV. “I thought you said you wanted to go to the beach?”

“I do, but you forgot to lock your door. That’s not like you.”

“It is now. I found this cool Bible verse in 2 Timothy that says, ‘He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him.’ I’ve entrusted my house to Him, and this verse promises He will guard it, so I don’t have to lock up any more.”

That little fictitious scenario is an illustration of what I call “using the Bible.” In some cases, there is a grain of truth. God certainly can guard and protect our stuff, for instance. But the particular verse this character quoted has nothing whatsoever to do with God keeping thieves from stealing a TV.

A friend of mine related another fictitious tale, used most often to steer people toward Bible study rather than Bible pick-and-choosing:

A young man decided his life was aimless. He needed help knowing what he should do, so he turned to the Bible. He decided that he’d fan the Bible open and point to a verse. This then would become his life verse. Turning his head, he released a good two-thirds of the pages and stabbed a finger onto the open page. “And Judas hanged himself,” the verse read. The young man gulped. There had to be some mistake. What could God possibly be saying to him? He decided to try again. Once more he closed the Bible, released pages, and pointed to a verse. This time he read, “Go and do thou likewise.”

So what am I saying with these illustrations? Simply this: not only is it possible, but some people actually do, take verses out of context and make them say something other than their clear meaning.

The key here is taking the verses out of context, for surely Sarah correctly quoted a part of 2 Tim. 1:12. Those words alone do say that God will guard what I entrust to Him. However, the context—the rest of the verse, chapter, book, and BOOK, show that God is promising something about our souls and for eternity, not our stuff for the here and now.

Notice, the context of a scripture is the book of the Bible in which it is found but also the Bible itself. The latter is the greater context, the totality of which gives meaning to individual verses, even those that are in apparent contradiction with each other.

2 Timothy indicates that false teaching—the result of taking Scripture out of context and ignoring parts of the Bible—will only increase:

But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them; and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
– 2 Timothy 3:13-17 (NASB)

And here I am, quoting verses of Scripture to prove a point. Is this not the very “using” of the Bible I decried above?

Understand, I was not saying a person can’t extrapolate principles from the Bible and apply that propositional truth to daily life. But there are some guidelines in so doing:

    1) The principle should not contradict any clear statement of Scripture.

For example, if some man took the principle, I can do all things through Christ, and used it to justify sleeping with a married woman, he would violate a clear Scriptural injunction.

    2) The principle should be an outgrowth of what the original intended.

This is where things get sticky, I think. How can we know the original intent? Only by studying the context. First the context of the book itself. Who was the author, why was he writing, what was he saying? Although the Holy Spirit inspired Scripture, this did not happen in a vacuum, but in a specific place and in a particular period of time. The words had meaning to the person who wrote them and to the original target audience. It is that meaning that creates a backdrop of understanding by which we may make present-day application.

    3) The principle should not become an exclusive doctrine if scriptures also exist that point to a paradoxical principle.

Here’s where a lot of denominational differences have been created. One denomination finds verses about Topic X that seem to indicate Doctrine A should guide our beliefs. Another denomination finds verses about Topic X that seem to indicate Doctrine B, in opposition to Doctrine A. Which denomination is right? Are some of the verses to be ignored or explained away?
Is the Bible contradictory?

If the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is to be believed as inspired by God, then even the apparently contradictory parts are there for a reason. I reject the either/or arguments and adopt a both/and approach. God put both positions in the Bible, to the point that scholars steeped in the Word can make credible cases for opposing views. I conclude, God is saying both things, though they appear to be contradictory.

This may appear to be illogical, but I don’t think it is, not if we remember who God is. He is three, but one. Came to earth as a man though he did not cease to be God. Is merciful AND just. You get the picture. Not only does paradox exist in God, but He transcends our limitations. If I know Him to be so, then I don’t have to tie up Scripture in a neat doctrinal bow at the expense of some of what He has to say.

Now don’t misunderstand. I think there are doctrines that are clear, without any contradiction, the chief being who Jesus is and why He came and what He accomplished. Those clear statements are the ones that define being a Christian.

The others—the ones that seem paradoxical—still need to be believed. It is in dismissing the ones we don’t like or that clash with others we believe that creates problems. If nothing else, it divides Christians.

This post is a combination of two articles that first appeared here in April 2007.

Published in: on June 30, 2015 at 6:29 pm  Comments Off on Using The Bible Instead Of Believing It  
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Ambiguity, Thy Cousin Is Relativism


A_starry_sky_above_Death_Valley

I haven’t heard a lot about the emerging church lately. According to one source the eulogy has been given and only one hold-out pastor remains. I suspect the disaffected who identified with the emerging church have been swallowed up by Progressive Christians.

Nevertheless, the emerging church movement had an impact on traditional churches. The tell of their influence is in the buzz words that crop up in radio programs, print articles, Internet sites, and sermons—words such as truth claims, missio or missional, conversations, contextualize, and mystery. There’s a concept, also, which I’ve heard, though not necessarily stated so bluntly—ambiguity.

The thinking is, God is a mystery, life is a mystery, and there really aren’t any definitive answers.

I admit—I get a little cranky when I hear people espousing these views.

First, God is NOT a mystery. He is transcendent. The two are quite different, a topic I explored in the post “Transcendence vs. Mystery.” That God is not a mystery becomes clear when we read passages in Scripture such as Jeremiah 9:24:

“But let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the LORD. (emphasis, here and throughout this post, is added)

The New Testament also affirms God’s “knowability.” For example, Paul says in Colossians 2:2b-3

attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Yes, the mystery has been revealed. Paul stated this clearly in the first chapter of the same book:

that is, the mystery which had been hidden from past ages and generations, but has now been revealed to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

On the other hand, that God is transcendent is also clear. Isaiah 40:12-14 sets the stage for a beautiful declaration of God’s transcendence by asking a series of questions:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand,
And marked off the heavens by the span,
And calculated the dust of the earth by the measure,
And weighed the mountains in a balance
And the hills in a pair of scales?
Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD,
Or as His counselor has informed Him?
With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding?
And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge
And informed Him of the way of understanding?

The conclusion is powerful. In part it reads

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
Has it not been declared to you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is He who sits above the circle of the earth,
And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers,
Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain
And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.
He it is who reduces rulers to nothing,
Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless.
Scarcely have they been planted,
Scarcely have they been sown,
Scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth,
But He merely blows on them, and they wither,
And the storm carries them away like stubble.
“To whom then will you liken Me
That I would be his equal?” says the Holy One
.
Lift up your eyes on high
And see who has created these stars,
The One who leads forth their host by number,
He calls them all by name;
Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power,
Not one of them is missing.

The Apostle Paul brings together God’s transcendence and his “knowability” in 1 Cor. 2:12-16:

Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, THAT HE WILL INSTRUCT HIM? But we have the mind of Christ.

In that last verse, Paul quotes from Isaiah, showing that God’s transcendence is unchanged, and yet, because of Christ’s work on the cross and God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to believers, we have the mind of Christ.

In other words, Christians can know, we do have answers, we don’t need to walk around in a cloud of doubt.

Granted, the answers may not be what people want to hear. More often than not, our “why” will be answered by God’s “I’m working out my will in the world.” For some, that’s not good enough.

For others that’s too spot on. That sin and suffering, pain and heartache, have a purpose seems too unambiguous. That God is sovereignly in charge over things we wish He would eradicate makes us uncomfortable. How can we trust a God whose answer to our questions is, Trust Me?

We want more, or we want to say, more isn’t attainable. For some reason, a segment of the religious find satisfaction in a declaration that things are ambiguous. Some readily belittle faith that claims to be the assurance of things hoped for. Faith, in these critics’ way of looking at things, is actually doubt.

What I find interesting is that this embracement of doubt, of uncertainty, of ambiguity, seems to mirror the rise of postmodernism’s version of relativism. Essentially, the idea that we cannot know—because history changes facts and redefines terms, because we are constrained by our culture and our experiences to understand only within our own narrow framework, not that of the broader context—shatters the idea that there is an inerrant, infallible Word of God upon which we can rely for Truth.

The problem in all this is that those who say we cannot know, rule out the possibility that God did in fact give us a written record of what He wants us to know, that He preserved what He told us down through the ages, and that He gave us His Spirit to understand it apart from and beyond our own cultural constraints.

And why do they rule God’s transcendent work out?

They would rather believe in mystery, I guess, rather than transcendence. But in so doing, they are, themselves, drawing the conclusion that they KNOW God could not work in such a transcendent way. It’s another way of putting Man in God’s place.